Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Allez les Ecureuils!

Or "Go Squirrels!" This was the phrase going round Cotonou when the Squirrels of Benin took on the Black Stars of Ghana in a FIFA 2010 World Cup Qualifier this past weekend. And whilst this match meant nothing as far as World Cup qualifiers are concerned (Ghana are already through to South Africa 2010, while Benin were knocked out in the last round of matches), it did count towards the African Cup of Nations in Angola next year.

I joined a group of good friends (all donned in yellow Benin soccer shirts) in going to watch this international football match. We were at the stadium a full two hours before kick-off and sat in our plastic seats soaking up the atmosphere and colour of a vibrant crowd. Behind us sat a band consisting of trumpet, shakers, djembe drums, and other instruments seldom seen in a full orchestra. They played the whole game, and despite the noise, this really added to the football extravaganza.

The crowd itself was really well-behaved, closely watched by a large contingent of riot police and army troops. The match kicked off at 16h00 local time and from the start it was evident that Ghana did not have their hearts in the game. They were playing to prevent injury, while the hosts were playing to secure a spot in the African Cup of Nations. Benin pressed Ghana throughout the match, and after countless opportunities, Benin scored the winning goal off the post in second-half injury time.

And the stadium, frustrated due to some squandered opportunities mixed with the heroics of the Ghanaian keeper, erupted in rejoicing. Allez les Ecureuils echoed round the field. Driving back home one would have thought Benin had won the World Cup... The roads were full of people waving Beninoise flags and celebrating a victory over their much-fancied West African rivals. But more than that, Benin had qualified for the 2010 African Cup of Nations.

The capacity-filled stadium.

Giant Beninoise flag pulled over the fans.

The stadium erupts after the winning goal.

Fans and supporters storm the pitch on the final whistle.

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